A group of foreign nationals arrested by authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia may have gained access to information not approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, experts say.
The group was detained by Chinese police and held in a detention center in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, on suspicion of links to terrorism after they watched what the authorities termed "a propaganda video" in their hotel room.
The group of mostly wealthy professionals and retired people from South Africa, India and the United Kingdom were on a custom tour of the cities of ancient China.
They were arrested on Friday as they tried to board a plane after visiting the mausoleum of former Mongolian emperor Ghengis Khan, and after watching a video about him, media reports said.
Nine members of the group now face criminal investigation on charges of "watching terrorist propaganda videos," while the other 11 have been released pending deportation.
But commentators said the travelers had likely gained access to narratives about the regions they were traveling through that went against the official ruling Chinese Communist Party line.
"These tourists were basically from the top drawer of society and were definitely pretty wealthy, as they had been traveling for such a long time," Frostburg State University history professor Ma Haiyun told RFA.
"It is a bit mysterious that they should be detained for watching terrorist videos in their hotel room," he said.
"I suspect that they probably discovered or had in their possession some information that the Chinese Communist Party doesn't like," Ma said.
"That's why they confiscated their video footage, photos and so on."
Ran Bogong, retired politics professor at Toledo University, said the arrests could have been the result of prolonged surveillance by the authorities, and needn't necessarily be linked to Inner Mongolia, where ethnic Mongolians complain of the creeping loss of their traditional nomadic lifestyle and grazing lands to Chinese mining and forestry companies.
"It's very likely that the Chinese authorities knew a few things about these tourists beforehand, and the government decided to detain them after they got to China," Ran said.
"This was a very diverse group, coming from all walks of life, so how did they come to get together and organize such a long tour to China?"
"We still don't know the answer to this question."
Ran said the group may have had access to material about the opposition of many Chinese Muslims to Beijing's rule in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, for example.
The Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim, Uyghurs suffer harsh repression under Chinese rule to the extent where hundreds have fled the country to escape persecution and lack of economic opportunity.
Chinese authorities have blamed an upsurge of violence in Xinjiang since 2012 on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state, and have cracked down on Uyghur religion and culture.
‘No terror links’
Among those detained in Inner Mongolia is 72-year-old Hoosain Ismail Jacobs, a former fighter against apartheid for the African National Congress (ANC), and his 67-year-old wife Tahira.
The couple has family links to major technology companies in South Africa, including Vodafone, while tech firm CEO Salim Aziz Joosub is also one of those being held.
British and South African consular authorities say they working for the detainees' release.
South African doctors Feroz Suliman and his wife Shehnaaz Mohamed are also among those detained.
The South African charity Gift of the Givers, which has a track record in negotiating hostage releases, called on Beijing to release the tourists.
"The families call upon the Chinese government to release the detainees immediately," it said in a statement. "These individuals have no terror links, no criminal record in their country."
The detentions came as South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa paid a state visit to China.
A spokesman for the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was making enquiries into the reasons for the arrests, and had requested an explanation of the exact crimes the detainees were supposed to have committed.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.